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A brilliant meditation on the Rosenbergs
on December 20, 2000
I first read this book in the early 1980s, shortly after reading Doctorow's other masterpiece, Ragtime. The Book of Daniel is a fictional meditation based on the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. The Isaacsons, Doctorow's fictional couple based on the Rosenbergs, have a young son named Daniel and a daughter named Susan, and the book is told from the point of view of Daniel, now grown and attending college during the radical upheavals of the 1960s.
Doctorow displays an encyclopedic and detailed knowledge of both of those political periods, capturing the tone of the rhetoric, the pop music, the posters, the idealism, the hypocrisy, and the dilemmas confronting human beings caught up in political movements that seem more powerful than the people themselves. He is as unsparing in his treatment of sixties radicals as he is in his treatment of the cold government executioners who sent the Rosenbergs to their death.
One of most remarkable things about this book is the character of Daniel himself: sharply intelligent yet confused and conflicted, someone who sees all the angles yet cannot bring himself to act -- a modern-day Hamlet. The title's allusion to the biblical Daniel is reflected throughout the text in a number of clever ways as the narrative leaps between historical reflections, allegories, and vivid evocations of moments and events in the life of Daniel, his sister, and their families. It poignantly evokes the relationship between the two children and the various guardians who are assigned to care for them after society has arrested and executed their parents.
The other remarkable thing about this book is its use of language. Doctorow is a great prose stylist. To get an idea of how great he is, you should read both this book and Ragtime, which is a very different work. Ragtime is written in a style reminiscent of an old children's primer--simple, quaint sentences, gentle imagery. The Book of Daniel, by contrast, is full of incendiary language and is a very complex narrative full of jarring transitions -- language ideal, in other words, to capturing the feel of the political periods and events that are the subject of the book.